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The Problem With Soylent, Vertical Farming, and Lab-Grown Meats

I’ve been working on a book about food and sustainability, and in the process, I’ve been wondering why people think the way they do. Things are staring to all come together for me in a huge, complicated 3-D Venn diagram in my head. It’s sort of difficult to spit out in a linear way, but here it goes…

I Want it NOW.

We’ve got this generation of young people who were brought up to believe that you can do anything you want and have anything you want with the click of a button. I like to call this “Buy it Now Syndrome.”  

Want tomatoes in January in Seattle? You got it!

Want that new iPhone but don’t have the cash? No problem!

How about that house you can’t afford? They’re waiting to give you a loan for twice as much!

The modern world is all about instant gratification, even if you don’t need it – because you deserve it. And the government can just print more money if it needs to, so no worries there! (Learn more about our economic system and how we’re bound for disaster if we don’t make big changes here.)

Filling the Void

We’re buying more and more things, things we don’t need, to fill a void because we have no purpose in the world. No place in the community. No meaning. We buy things and temporarily it makes us feel better. We construct an illusion of a perfect life online.

Everybody Wins!

Most young people today grew up not needing to work, not even needing to win the race to get the gold medal. Everybody wins! They’re not learning life lessons on the playground because the minute a scuffle breaks out, helicopter monitor adults swoop in to make sure there’s no fighting. Kids just don’t have an opportunity to learn socially from their peers. They’re being told that they’re fantastic all the time, and they grow up believing this. They don’t even need to really worry about face-to-face interactions because screens have taken over.

Reductionism

Schools aren’t teaching creative thought or problem solving: they’re teaching for tests to get good scores get more money for the district. They’re learning subjects in complete isolation, not concepts. Math is math and has nothing to do with art, or history, or language. This leads to a generation of adults only understanding their one vertical field. Someone might be an expert in one field, without having any understandings of how this relates to the bigger picture. We’re teaching reductionist thinking, not holism. Not only this, but we don’t even trust experts anymore. With the information available on the Internet, who needs experts? Our new generations of narcissists are always right and have all the answers!

Nature’s Resources

This reductionist world-view, or “materialism” leaves them to believe that matter is the only thing that matters. Nature is here for us to exploit for resources. That mountain exists for us to extract the minerals. That underground aquifer is there for us to suck up and irrigate water-hogging crops – never mind that they probably shouldn’t be growing crops there in the first place. And the water diverted for crops leave those living in the town without any clean water.

Myopia

This is completely myopic thinking. It’s actions without consequences and focuses on short-term gains. Buy it now, never pay later. This is what kills me about vertical farming, lab-grown meats, and is the exact problem with Soylent and similar “foods.” Their sustainability claim assumes that all that plastic all that energy is infinite.

Sustainability means something that can actually be SUSTAINED. How on earth does it make more sense to grow lettuce or fake meat indoors, under florescent lights, in climate-controlled rooms, in plastic trays, with fertilizers either made with petroleum or mined minerals? For what, crunchy water? A meat-like substitute? Lettuce is not a nutrient dense food… BUT you can make a lot of money branding it as sustainable, local, organic, and vegan. However cattle managed properly can actually help sequester carbon, but instead, we’re being told that growing tissue in a lab is MORE sustainable than photosynthesis.

We’d rather not have to deal with the messiness of blood, death, and…reality. But folks like to buy into the illusion that we’ve solved our “how to feed the world” problems with high tech. All we need is robotic indoor farms to save us and we’ll be fine.

Cognitive Limits

Why can’t we see the big picture? The problem is, our brains can only think so much. Just like we can only jump so high, or run so far, our brains can only handle a certain amount of thinking at once. If we don’t rely on and trust experts, then that renders us less successful at taking care of all of the other decisions we have to make on a daily level. Sustainability and economics are complex concepts and too big for most folks to handle, so we take pretty naïve approaches to solving them. Don’t have any money? Just borrow it and worry later! We also haven’t been taught to see the big picture, to look at history and draw associations. We only know that math is math and immediate gratification feels good.

Peak Cheap Resources

There are certain fundamental laws of nature that cannot be ignored. We will run out of oil. It doesn’t make sense to be fracking – at all! Mined minerals are running out. Debts must be repaid. We’re currently not making enough money to pay it back. We’re stripping our soil of nutrients and we’re not restoring these soil “banks.” Someone will need to pay it back, or it will go bankrupt. It’s impossible to engineer food from nothing. You need some raw materials and we’re running low – and nobody seems to get this.

We Aren’t That Special

It’s time for some humility. We need to admit what we don’t understand. We need to have respect for historic events, for experts, and for nature. We also have to admit that humans have made some pretty major mistakes and are messing things up. We’re not the most important species on earth. We are only part of the food web, part of nature, not on top of it. Nature will continue with or without us. All of the molecules that make up our bodies will be recycled into new life. Our lives are only on loan.  

Holism

We can’t run from debt, from nature, or from death. Sustainability MUST be considered from a holistic perspective, considering ALL the inputs in a system and the value of the outputs must be weighed. Vertical farming, lab meats and Soylent are not the answer, they’re just adding to our debt with a green wrapper around them.

When you consider all the costs, these tech solutions aren’t actually so green. It’s time to start thinking bigger.

Grass-Fed Angus image licensed under the Creative Commons.

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Diana Rodgers 2017

Diana Rodgers

Diana Rodgers is a farmer and nutritionist, and the best-selling author of Paleo Lunches and Breakfasts on the Go.

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